The Crippled Tree

Source: Han Suyin, The Crippled Tree (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), pp. 377-379

Text: The cinema was called in Chinese the True Light Cinema. It had a brown gooey façade, and at that time it looked enormous; it had suffered, forty years later when Rosalie returned to stare at it (renamed the People’s Theatre, and with a grey sticky façade), the shrink that all revisited childhood monuments suffer. The True Light Cinema showed chiefly American pictures in the 1920s, because there were no Chinese film companies. The films were all galloping horses, villains, and usually a buxom girl, with long fair hair, who was constantly getting herself tied to railtracks and rescued in the nick of time from a rapidly enlarging locomotive belching smoke that blackened the screen and dimmed the cinema too. An orchestra of White Russians in the pit made appropriate music with drum beats for revolver shots. The King of Kings, and City Lights with Charlie Chaplin (which Mama did not think funny), Rosalie would remember for many years; also a film, The Birth of a Nation, which showed hooded horsemen clad in white sheets riding down ugly black men, and the same fair-haired, buxom girl, throwing herself down some rocks because a black man was running after her and smiling. It was at this film that the incident occurred.

Someone in the audience (while it was dark and musically solemn because house was heing burnt with the white-clad horsemen ranged round watching) got up and started to shout. There was immediately a commotion, lights were switched on, policemen appeared from the four corners of the hall where they were always posted, and the young man who had shouted was dragged away, the usual sticks plying upon him quick and fast while he strove to cover his bleeding face with his hands. And it reminded Rosalie of Charlie Chaplin, though this young man was Chinese and had the scarf round his neck which indicated he was a university student.

While the young man was being dragged out, Mama turned to Rosalie. who was not sitting in the same row as Mama and Tiza and Papa, but alone behind, because there had been only three seats in the row. The young boy who occupied the seat next to Tiza had left it to run to the aisle, as many others did, to get closer to the young student, whom the policemen were dragging away. ‘Quick, now,’ said Mama, ‘sit here with us.’

Rosalie obeyed. She sat next to Tiza, in the seat left vacant by the boy.

But the boy now returned, and said: ‘This is my seat.’

Mama indicated the seat in the row behind, which Rosalie had left. ‘You can sit there.’

The young boy began to shout: ‘This is my seat, my seat.’

And all the people in the cinema now crowded round them, round Mama, Papa, Rosalie and Tiza.

Then another young man with a scarf began to shout, and the young boy suddenly raised his fist and screamed: ‘Down with all white devils from over the sea,’ and there was noise like a train approaching quickly, and it was the whole cinema, together making this noise. They stamped, clapped, whistled, and suddenly they were all shouting, in time: ‘Down with the colonialists, down with the imperialists,’ and singing.

The policemen reappeared, and again they began to use their sticks, but they were too few, and they crowded round Mama and the girls and got them out of the cinema, and Papa stayed behind. Then he too came out, and he was so pale, Rosalie had never seen him that colour before.

Comments: Han Suyin (1917-2012) was a Chinese Eurasian physician, novelist, memoirist and historian, best-known for her novel A Many-Splendoured Thing. She was born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou to a Chinese father and Belgian mother. Her book The Crippled Tree, a combination of history and memoir covering 1885-1928, documents the great challenges their family faced during a period of political turmoil in China. In this passage, recording an incident in a Peking cinema, she refers to herself in the third person (Rosalie). The anecdote continues with a bitter row over race between the two parents. There was a small amount of Chinese film production in the 1920s, particularly towards the latter end of the decade, but it is not clear when the incident described took place. A screening of The Birth of a Nation (1915) in China in the 1920s feels unlikely, but the scenes she recalls are part of the film.

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